Tag Archives: seasonality

Transcending Seasonality: Preserving in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Recipes

By Rachel A. Snell

By the mid-twentieth century, the combined forces of science, technology, and industrialization freed the American consumer from the dictates of seasonally available ingredients. The tomatoes, peas, asparagus, spinach, and other vegetable delicacies once proudly featured in spring and summer menus in nineteenth-century cookbooks could be obtained virtually year-round. However, the desire to conquer the limits of seasonality existed long before the origins of the modern, industrial food system. The Fiske Family Cookbook, a manuscript recipe collection likely compiled by Joanna Ober Edwards Fiske and her daughter Joanna A. Foster of Beverly, Massachusetts, over the bulk of the nineteenth century, contains a rich and detailed record of the struggle with seasonality.[1] Instructions to keep meat fresh without ice, prepare cucumber pickles, dry apples, and create other preserves hint at the challenges of food preservation in an era before reliable refrigeration.

Table Diagram from Fiske Family Cookbook, ca. 1810-1890, Winterthur Museum and Library. The appearance of two detailed table diagrams in the cookbook hints the Fiske women had other concerns or aspirations.

Mid-nineteenth-century recipes like those collected by the Fiske women suggest the considerable effort women exerted to transcend seasonality in an era before reliable canning, refrigeration, and other methods of food preservation. Preserving, the process of preventing spoiling and extending the shelf life of foods using various techniques, was a fundamental development in human history. Preservation techniques like drying, salting, pickling in vinegar, smoking, fermenting, and many others evolved and were perfected over thousands of years. While the techniques to preserve food remained nearly constant, technological innovations during the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries expanded the lifespan of preserved foods. Until the invention of home canning equipment, beginning with the patenting of the screw-on zinc lid in 1858, home preserving was limited by unreliable methods to seal preserved food from bacteria. Storage was especially fraught, since for all preserved foods “the more often they are exposed to the air by opening, the more damage there is of spoiling.”[2] Prior to 1858, sealing methods were imperfect with domestic advisors recommending queensware pots or glass jars or tumblers covered with tissue paper, writing paper dipped in brandy, or oiled paper. With these imperfect methods, the housewife had to be constantly vigilant for signs of decay amongst the family’s food stores. Lydia Maria Child advised her readers to regularly, “examine preserves, to see that they are not contracting mould [sic]; and your pickles, to see that they are not growing soft and tasteless.”[3]

Assortment of mason jars and lids.

Before the invention of Styrofoam trays filled with cuts of meat in refrigerated cases, preserving the meat was a considerable task requiring time and skill. In November 1852, Susan Pettibone recorded in her diary the multi-day task of butchering, processing, and preserving the families’ livestock. On November 17, Pettibone records killing a 330lb pig. On the nineteenth, she and her sister Julia “worked at the sausage meat,” but were waiting for colder weather to tackle the larger cuts. The next day, Pettibone records Julia spent the day “making brine” to complete the labor necessary to preserve the pig slaughtered four days before. Similarly, in December the sisters require several days to prepare “our beef” for brining. Pettibone does not record the brine favored in her household, but Sarah J. Hale’s The New House-Hold Receipt Book included a versatile recipe “for hams, tongues, or beef,” claimed to “keep for years” composed of spring water, coarse sugar, common salt, saltpeter, and various spices.[4] After brining for a set period, dependent on both the size and type of meat, Hale provides minute instructions for drying and smoking the cuts of meat. The following January, Pettibone records, “Mr. Pettibone brought home our hams from Mr. Shepards they are beautifully smoked,” suggesting the Pettibone family did not smoke their own meats but arranged for a neighbor to complete the preservation process. Perhaps as Hale recommends, the Pettibones’s reused their brine, adding “two pounds of common salt and two pints of water every time you boil the liquor.” Various versions of this brine circulate in both printed and manuscript recipe collections, such as “cure for beef or pork” found in Mary J. Hall’s contemporary recipe book.

To Cure Beef of Pork, Mary J. Hall, Receipt book, ca. 1851-1927, Winterthur Museum and Library.

If brining and smoking meat was the work of the cooler months, the summer months were equally filled with feverish preserving. In 1853, Susan Pettibone began making cheese on July 4th. Just over a month later on August 6, she noted, “I have made my eighth cheese which closes my dairying for this season.” Although Pettibone obscures the prodigious labor behind cheese making in her terse records, “I have made my sixth cheese today,” Eliza Leslie’s Directions for Cookery provides a sense of the process. Cheese making required diligent cleanliness and patience. Although Leslie includes precisely heated milk and purchased rennet (she also provides instructions for preparing your own rennet), her notation, “the best time for making cheese is when the pasture is in perfection,” recalls an intuitive and experiential version of women’s domestic knowledge that was waning by the mid-nineteenth century as technology increasingly conquered seasonality and preserving took on new meaning.[5] Recipes and diaries from this era suggest both the practical purpose of preserving (extending the usable lifespan of seasonal produce) as well as the genteel desire to produce confections that evidenced classes and status. Ingenious methods for preserving eggs, instructions to salt large quantities of beef, and the trading of recipes for curing hams evidence the importance of women’s seasonal labor to preserve food well into the nineteenth century.

[1] Fiske Family, Cookbook [ca. 1810- ca. 1890], The Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera, Winterthur Museum and Library, Winterthur, DE ; 1870 and 1880 U.S. Census, Beverley, Essex, Massachusetts, (Ancestry.com [database on-line]. Provo, UT), accessed March 1, 2016.

[2] Eliza Leslie, Directions for Cookery in its Various Branches (Philadelphia: Henry Carey Baird, 1851), 231.

[3] Lydia Maria Child, The American Frugal Housewife (New York: Samuel & William Wood, 1841), 8.

[4] Sarah J. Hale, The New Household Receipt-Book (London: T. Nelson and Son’s, 1854), 518.

[5] Leslie, Directions for Cookery, 384.

Seasonality @ The Recipes Project

By Elaine Leong

Franconian asparagus at farmer’s market of Bamberg (Image courtesy of Wiki Commons)

Happy May Day everyone! I am very excited to be on-point editor for the 2017 May edition of The Recipes Project. Living in Germany, where there is a ‘saison’ or a ‘- zeit’ for almost everything – Spargel (asparagus), Erdbeerkuchen (strawberry cake), Kurbis (pumpkin), Pflaumen (plums), Balkon (balconies – meaning party time!), I have grown accustomed to anticipating and welcoming the changing of seasons. Further inspired by the official first day of summer, I decided to invite a group of like-minded contributors to explore the theme of seasonality in this month’s edition.

In fact, both the joys and constraints of seasonality have been on my mind in this academic year. In the fall, through reading the letters between Johanna St. John and her steward Thomas Hardyman, I gained insight into the complex planning strategies used by early modern householders to ensure a table laden with enticing food and drink. Johanna’s frank instructions offered a glimpse into the everyday pressures faced by mistresses and servants to guarantee turkeys at Christmas, uninterrupted supplies of fresh butter, cheese, bacon all year round and a beautiful show garden in the spring and summer months. The letters very quickly revealed that whilst the St. John household was busy all year round, certain times of the year were particularly task-filled as the household collective strove to seed, cultivate and harvest and to preserve foodstuffs and produce medicines by sugaring, candying, distilling and brewing. The profound impact of the changing seasons on food and medicine preparation does not come as a surprise to those of us who spend time in recipe archives and, indeed, in the recent years there have also been contemporary calls to return to the land. For example, Johanna’s struggle with raising turkeys prompted me to revisit Barbara Kingsolver’s thoughtful Animal, Vegetable, Miracle where the author writes engagingly about her adventures in rearing heritage turkeys. As I cycle past the asparagus stands (soon to be strawberry stands) on my way to work, I relish the fleeting joy of spring produce and concurrently breathe a sigh of relief that, thankfully, I can rely on Germany’s specialist strawberry grower Karl’s to pick and make the delicious Erdbeer Traum (strawberry dream) jam which my family so loves in our Victoria Sponge Cake.

Commissioned during the ‘hungry gap’, this month’s posts work together to interrogate notions of seasonality in historical recipes across a range of geographical and temporal contexts and knowledge spheres. Food historians Rachel Snell and Molly Taylor-Polensky examine the technologies and methods used to preserve seasonal produce for year-round consumption and the various cultural reasons driving this work. Taking a slightly less sunny stance and drawing upon the recipe notebook of Rebeckah Winche, literary scholar and ecofeminist Jennifer Munroe prompts us to re-examine our interdependent relationship with other animals, plants, soil and climate on our planet.

Of course, notions of seasonality extended well beyond food and medicine, as art historian Jenny BoulBoullé  shows that artisans and craftsmen were also keenly aware of the effects of changing seasons. Representing the flourishing Artechne project, Jenny’s post reminds us of the importance placed upon season by both pre-modern artisans and 19th and 20th century scholars who so eagerly attempted to reconstruct historical recipes. Taking us into the realm of alchemy, Tillmann Taape discusses how distillation processes were used to make medicines and human bodies prevail against seasonal cycles of generation and decay.

Turning to the Chinese context, He Bian explores a late 14th century guide to living seasonally and introduces readers to the various recipes for food and medicines included within. Examining later readings and discussions of the guide, He questions whether seasonality, a classic theme in ancient Chinese medicine, came under critical scrutiny of early modern scholars. Our edition closes with a post by Caroline Petit who, taking us back in time to the ancient world, examines an intriguing story told by Galen. Taken together, these posts highlight the continued role played by seasonality in recipe practices and knowledge.

I hope that you all enjoy this special issue of The Recipes Project!